Despite the tea party's well-known fiscal focus, the anti-tax budget-slashing movement's most underappreciated energy source may be its evangelical Christians.
I suspected as much when I attended a couple of early tea party rallies. News coverage focused on the signs, speeches and slogans that promoted free markets, fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government. But my conversations with participants revealed another widely shared agenda: Stop abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the other social evils in the eyes of the religious right.
David Brody, the Christian Broadcasting Network's Washington-based chief political correspondent, was making similar discoveries. If it often looks as though tea partiers are driven by something resembling religious zeal, you'll understand why after reading his new book "The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America."
Along with numerous profiles and interviews, Brody recounts polls like a 2010 American Values Survey that indicated nearly half of self-identified tea party members said they were part of the "religious right or conservative Christian movement."
For example, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life found 60 percent of registered voters who agreed with the religious right said they also agreed with the tea party. Some 44 percent of white evangelical Protestants surveyed said they agreed with the movement. Only 8 percent said they didn't. Almost two-thirds of tea party supporters opposed same-sex marriage, and 59 percent said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Whether you agree with their social views or not (I don't), it is fair to say that with attitudes like that, the tea party doesn't sound so new. Their social conservatism sounds much like the religious right of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition that backed President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The tea party movement emerged mostly from grassroots libertarian activism, and it endures with the help of big dollars from backers like the Washington-based nonprofit FreedomWorks. But polls indicate their rank-and-file supporters at rallies and elections would be mighty sparse without the robust presence of dedicated evangelicals.
That's OK if your movement is led by a talented coalition builder like Reagan. But sharp differences on social issues, Brody observes, pose a potential threat to the movement's long-term unity.
After all, the movement's more secular tax-fighters tend to lean more live-and-let-live libertarian across the board, including on hot-button social issues like abortion rights, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization that the religious right so passionately opposes.
So, what holds the coalition together now? Well, there is You-Know-Who. The guy in the White House.
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